Why do poverty traps exist ?

no one chooses to be poor.Men come to poverty through no fault of their own and are kept their by a series of entrenched laws and social rules that rob them of their ability to change their lot in life.

Down and Out in Paris and London

When we think of poverty,we often think about hunger as hunger and poverty go hand in hand. We have also been exposed to the imagery of poverty by living in India where the demographic is an extensive mix of the extreme poor and the extreme rich. We are also often caught in a thought process where we think that poverty is something that poor people deserve because of their lack of merit,skills and inability to put in adequate amounts of effort to escape it. In the book ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’ by George Orwell,he questions this aforementioned philosophy through an extensive account on poverty in the streets of Paris and London.

The book is autobiographical in nature and he tries to draw light on the circumstantial nature of poverty wherein hunger drives one to being stuck in this loop. This cyclical nature of poverty is termed as ‘hunger-based poverty trap’ in the book ‘Poor economics’ by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo. George Orwell in his attempt to detail out what it means to be poor and how the inability to purchase food often affects the human psyche in ways that leaves them in the poverty trap. As he mentions in the book, in poverty he discovered boredom;the times when you have nothing to do because you are unemployed and being underfed interests you in nothing. Even when you try to change that reality about yourself and go in search of looking for jobs but are often turned down by people because of the ragged appearance that hunger brings to your face. The narrative that is propelled by the rich that poor people remain poor because they don’t work hard or try to create opportunity for themselves is negated by the detailed experiences that George Orwell gives of the people who are stuck in cyclical nature of poverty in modern cities such as Paris and London.

This very narrative has existed through ages and a large part of the government policies aim at improving the situation by catering to their ideas of hunger, where according to them it is the lack of quantity of food that propels poverty. The government of India made Right to food a fundamental right under article 32 of the constitution. This was passed in the time when granaries of Food Corporation of India were overflowing but the deaths due to starvation had still not declined. This passing of the act which entails the Public Distribution system is built upon the intuition that poor cannot afford to eat enough;this makes them less productive and keeps them poor. So even with all the logistical barriers which comes with implementing such schemes, such policies are supported by the government based on the intuition above, The question that arises here is that, is it the lack of quantity of food or the lack of nutritional value in the food eaten by them that keeps them stuck in this trap?

The answer to the above-mentioned question lies in understanding nutrition-based poverty trap. It highlights the S shaped relationship (Figure 1) where consumption of adequate calories affects the strength of the individual which eventually shows how productive the individual can be, This consumption pattern helps in understanding the relationship between income today and income tomorrow, where the poor get poorer because of lack of strength due insufficient calorie intake and the rich get richer due to more than enough required calories for productive performance.

Fig 1:S Shaped curve and Poverty trap:Poor economics,Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo

By the logic mentioned above, it becomes quite inherent that to come out of the poverty trap the poor should invest every available penny (after spending on all the unavoidable expenses) in acquiring food but that is not the case through the datasets that have been generated by J-PAL and also in the book written by George Orwell. It indicates that even when the income increases, the food expenditure doesn’t increase proportionally. Another revelation of the analysis is that the money spent of food is not with an aim of increasing nutritional value of the diet but is indeed spent on expensive calories which do not add effectively to the nutrition and is not done with the idea to come out of poverty. As George Orwell states in his book,

poverty annihilates future.when you have only three francs in the world you are quite indifferent;for three francs will feed you tomorrow,and you cannot think further than that.

We have often found ourselves thinking that poor people live a life of missed opportunities and they lack the patience or the long term vision of where they invest their money and how could it benefit them in the long run. But the poor are weary of any such radical change and think that any significant change that is worth sacrificing for will simply take too long and the possibility of future seems bleak when there’s such uncertainty in life.This uncertainty magnifies with the lack of money and this why when the entire world is at war with the virus it is the lower income daily wage labourers that got hit the most. This could explain why they are more about living in the present and spending on things that make lives bearable even if it means at the cost of spending in expensive calories which do not prove to be beneficial in the long run.

The benefits of good nutrition benefits the unborn child and the young children in ways that make investing in nutritional component of the food worth it. According to the study conducted by J-PAL, the effect of deworming children in Kenya which costs 1.36$ USD Per person per capita leads to the lifetime income gain of 3,269$ USD per person per capita. So in effect it is not the subsidised grains that could get them out of poverty but the increase in nutritional value of the diet that could effectively make that happen.

As George Orwell, mentions in his book that hunger drove him to be a dish washer who toiled hard in Hotel X by working 16 hours a day and still was paid just enough to keep him alive. He questions the significance of such jobs in modern cities like Paris where such jobs exist that essentially characterize as slaves of the modern world. One would question such slavery where the labourer is not given the time or liberty to come out of it. Why do such jobs propel in the society which stems the basis of poverty traps, not just hunger based poverty traps? The people higher in the hierarchy that are essentially the employers of these modern day slaves justify the creation of these jobs by making it sound purposeful. Apart from the economic value that it adds to the society, why would one want the creation or continuation of such jobs? As stated in book by Orwell, it is to curb the fear of the mob, because the mob would be dangerous if they had the leisure time to think and it would be safer to keep them busy. It goes beyond the ideas of hunger which becomes the driving reasons for perpetual poverty, but it is also the creation of such a societal structure that has created jobs which themselves are the traps of poverty. They are not created to benefit anyone but the proprietor himself. These thoughts have been recurrent through various philosophies such as the Gandhian philoshophy itself.

At such times, strong democratic governance systems become important because deviating away from the free market economy is not the option. The governance systems with a bottom-up approach could empower people whose voices need to be heard as they get lost in the drawbacks of the free-market economy.This increases accountability and transparency in the system where people who often get marginalized in the process of development also get accounted for while making decisions. The devolution of governance mechanisms through the 73rd and 74rd amendment that conferred constitutional status to Panchayats and Municipalities was the beginning but its effective implementation could be the driver that pushes people out these poverty traps.

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